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Is the USDA's New Symbol of Dietary Correctness a Coup for the Dairy Industry?

While there's some good news when it comes to fruit and vegetables, the new guidelines seem tailored to encourage maximum dairy industry profitability.

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Lactose intolerance, by some estimates, affects 75 percent of the world's population. Caucasians have one of the lowest rates of intolerance, at only 12 percent. These numbers don't include the people like me, who may not get explosive diarrhea and other classic effects of lactose intolerance, but don't do well on dairy, with results including phlegm, heartburn and upset stomach. And if 75 percent or more of the world's humans can't handle dairy, it's hard to argue it being necessary for optimal human health.  

Here is USDA's obsequiously dairy-centric advice to the lactose-averse: "If you avoid milk because of lactose intolerance, the most reliable way to get the health benefits of dairy products is to choose lactose-free alternatives within the Dairy Group, such as cheese, yogurt, lactose-free milk, or calcium-fortified soymilk (soy beverage), or to consume the enzyme lactase before consuming milk."  

Calcium is the primary justification for the importance of dairy, but many green vegetables offer just as much calcium as milk, and in a more absorbable form. With the exception of soymilk, all other calcium sources, including almond milk -- which contains twice the calcium of dairy milk -- are cautioned against:  

"[Non-soy, non-dairy calcium sources] may provide calcium, but may not provide the other nutrients found in dairy products."  

If science and health were calling the shots, then milk products would simply be absorbed into the protein category as one of many ways to get your essential amino acids, or perhaps into a "calcium" group that would also include dark-green leafy vegetables and fortified dairy alternatives.  

Much of the positive health hype about dairy is perpetuated by the National Dairy Council, which has a history of exaggerating dairy's positives and downplaying its negatives. In 2007 the Federal Trade Commission forced the NDC to retract its claim that dairy consumption encourages weight loss.  

The NDC is "the nutrition research, education and communications arm of Dairy Management Inc," the Web site of which makes its intentions clear -- and improving public health isn't one of them. "DMI helps build demand for dairy on behalf of dairy producers and is dedicated to the success of the dairy industry."  

Consuming dairy products is a choice that we (at least the lactose tolerant among us) have. But to spin the consumption of milk as a thrice-daily necessity is yet another scary reminder of the power that industries wield on policy.  

At least with food we have the option to think for ourselves. But if USDA policy is so clearly shaped by industry, it makes you wonder about compromises the agency might make in other areas of its purview. USDA regularly makes decisions on things like pesticide regulation, forest policy and approval or disapproval of genetically modified crops. And those decisions, unlike a plate symbol, aren't so easily ignored.

Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated weekly food column, Flash in the Pan.

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